Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The photo shown here is the result of Dawn's baking soda picture, an idea I got from A Magical Childhood. 
I get so many creative science ideas from this blog, it's always worth a glance if you have a handful of children and nothing to do! We didn't have any pipettes, so we used a child's medicine syringe and a handful of straws.

For breakfast today I had some really yummy rice pudding, which was relatively quick and very easy to make. I almost always use recipes when cooking, but every now and then I combine a couple of recipes, and then butcher them both so much that it turns into my own. This is one such occasion, and here is my recipe!

2 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup rice
1/4 cup jaggery powder*
tinned or fresh pineapple

Combine the first 3 ingredients in a pan, boil, and reduce to a simmer. Stir frequently for 20-30 minutes (good opportunity to do some housework or mess about on facebook while you're waiting) until it's the right consistency, then add chopped pineapple to taste.

*Jaggery is a form of cane sugar, not quite as virtuous as Rapadura, but still far more nutritious than most sugars on the shelves, and unlike Rapadura, they actually sell it in a shop in my town! At £1 for a 350g packet I can't even complain about the price. It gives the rice pudding a mild caramel taste.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012



Well, who'da thunk? The groundhog claimed we'd have another few weeks of winter yet, as did a couple of old English poems regarding sun on Candlemas, but it appears they were wrong, because spring has well and truly sprung. (Cue sudden freak snowstorm...)

I've been out in the garden, with my spade, turning the ground over and thinking about what I might or might not do with it. This is the first year the garden has been solely mine, and it's about twelve times larger than the tiny yard I failed to maintain in my old house! I have more time at home now than I did then, and two little helpers, so there is hope. But I think I'll start small, with the existing plants, and see how I go, before embarking on any major smallholding projects!

We have been contemplating the idea of having chickens next year. I very much want to in theory, but there are obstacles. The first is that before we can have chickens, we need fences, and fences are expensive! The close runner-up is that we have badgers, and they don't generally pay too much attention to fences. This can also prove expensive.

Anyway, for now, I have chosen a small and simple garden project: compost. Or so I thought. Who knew that composting was so complicated? I've spent hours researching it, only to discover that it all looks too much for me! I have bought a Green Cone for my food waste, but grass clippings and so on will still have to go on a conventional compost heap. That's OK though, my main aim was to keep my household waste bin as clean and empty as possible, especially as in our area they only collect it once a fortnight, and in the hotter months that leads to bad smells and maggots.

The Green Cone itself has provided much entertainment and little bin-relief so far. First there were the "self-tapping screws" which, according to the instructions, do not need a pre-drilled hole. Hm. Well, I put those screws next to the bit of firm plastic I wanted them to go through, and I waited, coaxed, threatened, begged... But they did not tap themselves in! So I had to call my husband, who brought his drill and solved the problem. Maybe husband-drilled holes are different from pre-drilled ones.

Then I had to find a spot in my garden which receives lots of sunlight, is accessible for emptying rubbish into, and which is not between two beautiful and very delicate rosebushes. Having possibly succeeded (why did I not measure the precise amount of sunlight throughout the garden on a grid system in December?) I started to dig. Oh my goodness, that was hard! Forty minutes, a couple of blisters, and a new-found respect for the men who used to dig the earth before they invented JCBs later, I had a hole of roughly the desired size. I tipped a bucket of water into it to make sure the drainage was sufficient. I stood and regarded my new pond. I visited my new pond several more times, before admitting I was going to have to break my back some more, dig deeper and improve the drainage situation with gravel.

Here is my temporary solution to the problem.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Camping in a corner

This is another variation on the Camping-At-Home experience. This one isn't quite so much fun, and isn't so easy to tidy up once the kids are in bed. Yes, that is a piano under all the food. My singing group will not be meeting here this week. This is the week we've been waiting for, when our kitchen is reborn.

The house I currently own belonged to my parents for 29 years before I bought it. This is the house I grew up in, and now Ali and I are working to turn it into our family home. My father is both frugal and handy: when something broke, he'd fix it. Otherwise he'd leave it alone. Or occasionally paint it pink. This is how our kitchen came to look like this:

 It's a lovely kitchen - large and light with space to dine. But beware of turning on the cold tap. Not only does it spray out viciously and soak you, but you can't turn it off once you've removed it, which happens far more frequently than you'd expect. Now, to be fair, I don't think my parents like tiger-pattern cupboard doors, that's just what unvarnished '80s pine looks like after twenty years of grease. 

 Check out the pink handles on those doors. They were to match the (then) pink wall.

Watch this space. It's going to have a breakfast bar in it.

Yes, you saw that right. Our cupboards slant. For those of you not old enough to remember this phenomenon, there are nice examples in The Tiger Who Came To Tea (you have to scroll down for the picture I'm thinking of).

And here is a nice view inside the larder-cupboard. I have to admit, this cupboard is the one thing I'm going to miss. I feel doubtful that any modern cupboard is going to be quite as lardery and cupboardy as this pink and blue vinyl-laden beauty.

Our utility room is also going to have some work done. This is what it currently looks like. See that? That's the new kitchen. (Some of it, anyway. The rest of it is in the part of the living-room not occupied by all the things that belong in the kitchen.)

Friday, 3 February 2012

The day after Candlemas

Before I begin, I apologise in advance if I don't always explain myself properly. I am bound to baffle some Christians with Pagan references and vice versa. Well, sorry, but I'm not going to attempt to explain what Candlemas is here. There are plenty of websites for that already. I'm just going to attempt to describe my thoughts and how I came to them, and hope you get the idea.

I intended to write a post on Candlemas, entitled, "Candlemas". But I was too busy celebrating Candlemas, so today will have to do. Anyway, I was very uncertain about when I was meant to be celebrating - Imbolc is the 1st, 2nd or 4th of this month, depending on which web page you're looking at. But seeing as the Christian festival's name holds more relevance for me (no ewe's milk here!) and most of our celebrations this year revolved around candles, I plumped for February 2nd, because unlike Imbolc, Candlemas doesn't keep moving around.

This is the first year that I have properly bothered with Candlemas/Imbolc. To be honest, it never really attracted me because I couldn't really see the point. Pagans will generally give some wishy-washy statement about the first signs of spring and ancient Irish sheep giving birth, which is true, but in a place where it's usually either pouring with rain or trying to snow in February, I'd rather wait and do spring properly at Easter. And many Christians haven't even heard of it, so explanations are less than abundant there. But this festival is Brigid's festival, and I am Brigid's pilgrim, so it seemed appropriate for me to make the effort this year.

You may have noticed I've been hiding in my shell for the last month or so. I've been very busy with the house, with my children, and with my own quiet thoughts. In my free time I have been reading a lot about nuns. That came about after a recommendation of the film No Greater Love, which brought up a lot of questions for me about the whats and whys of a contemplative, devotional life.

Now, a recent conversation I had with Granny Green about Imbolc being when we start looking outward again after a period of introspection, and a memory of something Ember said about winter being a Quaker lady in a grey cloak, got me to thinking that maybe the time between Christmas and Candlemas is my nun-time. As the land sleeps under its blanket of snow (symbolic snow this is, represented in the literal world by mud) and waits for the warmth to return, and as Mary waits her forty days before being purified after the birth of Jesus, we can spend some time sitting quietly with ourselves, cleaning out the rubbish that's cluttered up in Brigid's well. And then Candlemas comes, the Light of the World is presented at the temple, Brigid's flame of creativity is lit, clear water springs forth from the well (and from my bath, having spent a good twenty minutes with the plunger this morning :-\), and we can pull our wellies on and get out there to turn over the soil. Or, in my case, start blogging again. I'm not literally going outside. After all, the Groundhog said we've got another six weeks of winter to go.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Freedom food

People have exclaimed in wonder at the number and variation of mushrooms in my garden. It's not entirely surprising - they like nutrient rich soil, a food base of plenty of decaying plant matter, and each prefers its own situation - hedgerow, sunny field, etc. In the twenty-nine years that my dad owned and worked this garden, he deliberately created a rich and organic haven for wildlife of all kinds, not with birdseed and bee-boxes, but by letting nature do its thing: encouraging the plants that birds like, allowing slugs to feed the frogs, leaving undisturbed areas for the shy creatures to hide. 

Many fungi thrive in great numbers if the autumn is wet and mild, so this is a particularly good year to find them. If I speak like an expert, I'm deceiving you well, because everything I know I have learnt in the last twenty-four hours from Richard Mabey's 'Food for Free', and a brief Google Search.

Now, I'm not great advocate for self-sufficiency. I think that as an ideal it is flawed and impractical. I would prefer to aim for community-sufficiency. You know, I'll provide the apples and the mushrooms, you give me a few of your eggs and walnuts, Fred over there knows how to build a house, so we're well on the way to a happy life. But what I do believe in is being able to live without outside help. To not be one of the people who, when the system collapses and the shopping malls have all been looted, are panicking and considering cannibalism.

So, considering I'm a little too squeamish and sentimental to pop outside and shoot myself a woodpigeon (especially as they kindly eat my slugs for me now the toddlers have scared most of my frogs away), I'll have to get my protein from somewhere, and the mushrooms in my garden seem a pretty obvious place to start. But - big, stinking, screaming, almost insurmountable but - I really don't want to accidentally kill myself and my family!

Richard Mabey considers why so many people feel like this, considering that "there are 3000 species of large-bodied fungi growing in the British Isles, yet only twenty-odd of these are seriously poisonous." Yes, but what if I accidentally pick one that is? He does, after all, also state that, of the poisonous ones, "each one resembles maybe half a dozen edible types". He goes on to list many reasons why fungi are taboo, including mystical reasons and psychological associations, but for me it simply comes down to the scary possibility of death. Then again, I'm happy to pick berries and leaves from my garden, and there are deadly ones of those in Britain, too!

So I have decided to learn as much as I can about mushroom identification and usage this year, so that next year I'll have the confidence to consider them as a food source. Richard Mabey assures me that as long as I am absolutely exact about matching descriptions, locations and times of year, there will be no mistake. He also advises, mind you, to discard any mushrooms I'm unsure of, as "indigestion brought on by uncertainty about whether you have done yourself in can be just as uncomfortable as real food poisoning!" Less deadly though, I'd imagine.

The picture shown at the top of this post is, I believe, a group of parasol mushrooms. I took this photo last week, down by the woodpile. If you wonder why they're called "parasol", the next picture is what they looked like a few days later. Mabey suggests stuffing them or making fritters out of them.

 Next is (I think) field blewit. And if you know me to be wrong about any of my identifications, please, please tell me! These ones were amongst the dead leaves and fallen Bramley apples, and were spaced out in a straight line in the shade of a hedgerow. Mabey suggests using them as a tripe substitute (why would I want to do that?) or making an omelette out of them (much better).

Finally, on the slope of my front garden, I found a fairyland of these tiny specimens. They're not food, but Google searching suggests they're probably a kind of mycena (I hope so), though they look scarily like liberty caps. Hm. Well, I'm not breaking any laws as long as I leave them right there in the grass, and I won't be shouting about it to the local kids, anyway, just in case!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Friday Frolics

We haven't spent much time in the garden recently, so I thought today we'd better put that to rights. We found some work to do, and some games to play, and some activities that fall somewhere in between. We also found lots and lots of mushrooms, which warrant their own post, so I'll try and get to that tomorrow! For now, here are our frolics:

This is a game we call 'Good Apple Bad Apple'. We would ideally play it every few days at least, but as you can see there were three weeks' worth of apples on the floor today!

Next came the job of raking up the leaves. No-one wants unsightly piles of leaves, right?

Much better to have pretty piles of leaves.

Finally, when the work was done, there was enough daylight left for some skittle action. After all this fresh air, Minnie ate exceedingly well at tea time, and is no doubt falling asleep quickly as I type!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The home education debate continued

Blogger wouldn't allow Kay's essay as a comment, so I'll reverse things a little by posting her words here, and my own comment below.

What are schools for? Why do we have them? Why do most people assume school is a legal requirement? It's an idea that developed along with the industrial revolution. Suddenly, the people with the power and the momentum of the era wanted most people to be *workers*: people who could read and write and count and, more imporantly, people with a deeply ingrained work ethic. That is, people who feel that going to the same place, to do the same thing, every day, whether you think it's a good idea or not, is necessary, sensible and virtuous. That idea does NOT come naturally to humans. You have to train them to it from a young age.

And once the industrial revolution had put paid to the old ways of families and communities organising themselves, you had a population that mostly lived in towns, and mostly worked. Unwatched kids, hanging around getting up to mischief when the parents and older siblings were at work were a nuisance. Daily school was a way of containing them.

I discussed the school-or-home thing with some of my associates and there were elements of the work ethic in the worries that surfaced. What if the kids don't learn to put up with things, stick at things, find ways of dealing with things? I know what they mean, and it concerns me a bit too but most of the time, the thing that concerns me most is the way most people DO accept things, put up with things - you know, little things like managing to ignore mass murder, state-sponsored torture, the wholesale destruction of the environment, the majority of taxpayers' money being spent by ministers' chums in the city, the cynical destruction of the welfare state...

To the people who say 'how can you teach them everything, you don't know everything' I'd reply, go look up 'education' in the dictionary. It means 'drawing out', not 'stuffing stuff in'. One of the features of the 21st century is the extraordinary amount and variety of information that's available. What kids need is not facts (many of which, I daresay, you won't know) but how to find, judge and make use of facts. Make bags of use of that magic phrase "I don't know, let's find out..." Have lots of projects that explore finding and evaluating information sources. Lots and lots of "who is saying this?" "Why are they saying it?" "What evidence do they have?" "Why *that* evidence?" " Do *I* think that evidence makes their case, or could it be interpreted another way?"

Someone I discussed it all with was worried about the kids not getting maths or scientific method. I love (and have) that idea that all would-be home-educators are artsy and can't count! So yes, make sure they get scientific method - the ability to observe and record events, to experiment, to develop, question and test theories, to evaluate other people's scientific work - especially to evauluate statistics. Most of the people, most of the time, are flummoxed and misled by bad statistics. Bad statistics are all over the internet and the newspapers (remember that newspaper report that said SHOCK, HORROR, MOST UK CHILDREN ARE NOW BELOW AVERAGE IN MATHS!) So, in short, if they've got information and science methodology, they can learn just about anything they want to.

Another worry is that they won't 'fit in', won't have the chance to be 'normal'. Quite a large proportion of life's great oddballs either didn't go to school or went sporadically, or went to a variety of schools. When I say oddballs, I mean writers, movers, thinkers, hackers... anyone who's had to learn to think for themselves, you might say. The big question is what made the fork in the path between the bright, brilliant, world-changing oddballs and the seriously deranged, misfit oddballs. In some cases, you might say they are two sides of the same coin but, if I were you, I'd make a study of it! I suspect the answer might be having the consistent attention of someone who cares and knows how to listen and question. Kids can take quite a long time to voice their concerns, and often need inspired questions - ones they know how to answer - before they know clearly what their concerns are.

There is the danger of claustrophobia - for you and for them - if the family gets too closed and inward, the ideas and the assumptions too easily agreed. Outside influences cause friction and chaos. If there are no compulsory outside influences, it's all too easy to reject troublesome ones, and waste opportunities as a result. I don't think I got much out of being at school, but I did get the experience of having to get along with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of backgrounds and views. You need to make sure the kids get that - not just the 'BBC balance' that says, 'here's the normal way, and here are a couple of whacky alternatives'. I suspect that, if the claustrophobia worry does manifest, it will do so during adolescence, when school is a daily bolt-hole to get away from home and parents (who are, for a while, the fount of all evil) and then at the end of the day, home is the bolt-hole to get away from teachers/peers (who are of course, etc)... mind you, I didn't actually GO to school much at that stage of my life. Er... how do home-educated kids go about playing truant when they're 13?

Anyway... as to your assessment of what's wrong with schools: for one reason or another, I've spent quite a lot of time in quite a lot of schools in recent years. My conclusion is that there are (or have been) some very good primary schools - but most of what I liked was going on because I was visiting Creative Partnership or Arts Council or Community Regeneration projects, most of which are currently being starved out. Secondary schools I found less attractive - mostly a boring, containment exercise and yes, I was astonished at the frequency and persistence of stuffing the students with sweets, cakes, fizzy drinks and other such garbage. I simply can't figure out how they get away with it, in this era of dietary panics and allergies and diet-related ADS concerns.

Nothing there to make me think they're missing much. So with all that in mind, I suppose my ideal would be for children to have a year or so of primary school education and as much secondary school education as THEY want, plus a plan and an opportunity to get into college/uni later.

And finally - cost and resources. You need to find sources of materials in a wide variety of subjects. There must be courses... oh and, those old-fashioned things, what are they called? Oh yes, BOOKS! (All home educators, in fact all parents, should (in my view) be members of Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book.  Is there any kind of organisation that funds home-educators for buying resources and doing courses? It'd be worth agitation for if not. I mean, now concepts like 'free schools' and 'faith schools' and 'technology academies' allow all kinds of weird people to teach kinds in all kinds of odd ways at the tax payers' expense, I don't see why parents shouldn't get some of that money. That is, I don't see why they *shouldn't* but I can see why they might not - funding parents to teach kids to think doesn't, after all, comply with the original purpose of schools (see para one, above).


I can quite see why you're taking Dawn out of school and I think I would possibly do the same, at least for a while but beware assuming what's right for one sister is right for both. I think I'll suggest you and Dawn working together for now, sort out some of the difficulties she's been having, try out this whole home-study lark, let Min join in as much as she wants and then when the time comes, put Min in school for a year or so, then she'll have the experience, the evidence, and the habit of independent thought, which will allow her to decide whether she wants to go through school or join in the home-study world.